Europe, Solo Travel, Travel Advice

Travel Scams – On Guard!

21 Comments 30 November 2010

begging for money rome

It's hard to ignore...

People always ask me if I’m scared to travel alone; my answer is “Not normally.” Sure there have been some crazy taxi rides and I always get a bit nervous when I arrive in a country late at night for the first time; however, overall I’ve never felt like I was in life threatening danger. Some of that might be luck, but I also believe some of it is skill. As a solo traveler, I’ve adapted my personality to avoid dangerous situations and scams.

Basically this means that I trust no one.

This lack of trust in human kind also means that I have to harden my personality in order to pull it off. Kids tugging at my shirt in India – I ignore. Aggressive shop keepers – I don’t even make eye contact. Someone comes to me to ask for something, and I generally don’t help. A nice man offers to buy me a drink – I kindly refuse. It takes a lot to get through the barrier I put up; and for good reason – my safety and sometimes for my sanity.

Yes – this sounds a bit harsh, but I think at times it’s necessary to have to dig deep and find your inner bitch when you travel. Some days that’s easier for me than others. As a traveler (solo or not) you are a target for all kinds of begging, petty theft, and scams. I’ve been exposed to my share of all of these. People simply want your money; some will just take it, and some will try to outsmart you.

In fact, while I was in Europe this summer I was reminded of how many scams a person can easily fall into. While in Paris I had someone try to pull the “Did you drop this gold ring?” scam. I answered the woman no, and started to engage in conversation with her – and then my inner scam alert went off and I simply walked away. She followed me for a short while and then gave up when I finally crossed the street.

There are hundreds of these types of scams – but how do you avoid them?

Educate yourself.  Read the guidebooks/websites before you go.

When I was in Italy a few years ago with a friend we were exposed to an elaborate scam. As we were walking to the Baths of Caracala, we had our map out and were trying to figure out how to get to the entrance – when all of a sudden a guy pulls up in a car all frantic telling us he’s from France here on business and he’s frantic because he needs gas and his credit card isn’t working here for some reason. Before we know it he’s asking us what size clothes we wear and asking us for gas money – he wants to barter with us. He obviously didn’t know he was dealing with long term travelers; we trust no one. My friend took one look at his gold bracelet he was wearing and said – “I think you can buy your own gas”. Later that night I was reading my guide book and came across this scam warning:

Your walking down the street and a man in a car with a map on the front seat pulls up next to you and says he is lost. He will say he works for Armani or Gucci. He will ask if you can help him with gas money and will trade you one of the sample leather jackets he has in his car for the small priced of 20 or 50 Euro. The Leather jacket turns out to be an extremely cheap, smelly PVC jacket not worth 2Euro

I probably should have read this before I toured around. But luckily we had our guard up anyway.

tourists angkor wat

Tourists abound at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Location, Location, Location

Scams grow like weeds around big tourist sites. It’s as if a fisherman is going to a stocked pond to fish – places like the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, or the Roman Coliseum are easy pickings. If strangers are coming up to ask you for help around these areas – put your guard up.

On the other hand, if I’m walking down a side-street in Paris and someone comes to ask for help – I’m probably more apt to trust them than if I were standing taking pictures of the Louvre. However even if you are not near tourist sites – keep in mind that it’s important to try NOT to look like a tourist – try to fit in if possible.

Don’t act like you do at home.

You don’t have to be nice to everyone asking for help. Repeat after me, “I am not a bad person if I ignore someone.”

I know, I know – ignoring people is hard and not in our natural make-up. But that’s what scam artists are counting on…the kindness of people. Most elaborate scams happen when someone thrusts themselves on you and asks for help. It doesn’t matter how well they are dressed or what kind of car they drive, you don’t have to help.

You don’t have to make eye contact, or even say thank you or hello. I give you permission to forget about all of your manners when you travel. Maybe this is the extreme, but I see more people get sucked into scams or begging by simply trying to be kind and acknowledge the scammer because it’s our natural instinct.

Some people may think this is too extreme. They feel being cordial and interacting with people is all part of the travel experience; if you aren’t cordial with people, then why get out and travel in the first place. However for me, I enjoy travel a lot more when my passport is in my possession, and I’m not spending time talking to the police.

fake money

Too good to be true

When something seems to good to be true…it normally is.

Finally – remind yourself of this…money doesn’t grow from trees and strangers don’t just give you gold rings or Armani jackets.

If you are looking for more information on this subject – here’s a pretty good article from Travel & Leisure about some of the top scams people encounter while traveling

In the meantime – stay on guard while traveling! And please share some of the travel scams you’ve been exposed to below!

Your Comments

21 Comments so far

  1. Audrey says:

    We usually have our guard up and have a rather tuned inner scam alarm as well. But a few years ago we let our guard down and got scammed in the most unlikely of places – by airport security personnel in Bangkok. Dan put his money belt in the tray and watched it go into the x-ray machine before going through the metal detector. He noticed a slight delay, but didn’t think anything of it until he checked and saw that all his big Thai bills had been extracted. The story ends well – we asked them to check security tapes and they found suspicious behavior from one fo the employees and our money was eventually returned. However, after writing about it we’ve been contacted by other people who have been robbed at Bangkok’s airport in similar situations.

    So, even when you think that you’re in a perfectly safe environment, it’s still good to keep your guard up!

    • admin says:

      Wow Audrey, I had heard about people having things stolen in security lines before and because of that I’m always super cautious and aware of my laptop as it goes through…but I can see how it would be easy to be distracted. Especially these days when the TSA is under such scrutiny!

  2. Poi says:

    Our guard is up a lot sometimes I think to much, I sometimes wonder how many people I’ve said no to that might have been genuine.

    • admin says:

      Great point Poi, I’m sure I miss some wonderful opportunities too because I’m too cautious! I don’t say no to everyone, and it mostly depends on if I’m alone or not. However I’m still think it’s better to be safe than sorry. Happy Travels!

  3. Gary Arndt says:

    Basically, anyone who randomly approaches you to start a conversation in English wants something or is trying to scam you.

  4. Gillian says:

    I found that I too was untrusting of anyone who approached us. You’re post makes me feel better though as I thought it was just the cynic in me making me act that way.

    But I worried, as Poi notes, that I was missing some genuine connections and I probably did. I heard of travelers having amazing interactions and felt that I was missing this b/c of my scam radar. I guess it’s a balance I’m still trying to work on.

  5. Great tips you got there. I’ve never been scammed before, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been “suspected” of trying to scam instead. There were times that I tried to borrow cellphones from people or try to help old people with their luggage (especially when I first came to this country), and they all looked at me weird and said ‘No’. As if I’d try run away with their phone or an old lady’s luggage or something.

  6. Good post. And good to know about the security peeps at the BKK airport – that’s nuts!

    I too, had my guard up, but not so much that I ignored every stranger. I think there is a balance and I really think we know when something’s up.

    That being said…I was totally scammed when I was much younger, in high school, to be exact. My boyfriend and I were in NYC and totally got sucked into the classic-scam of a shell game. I lost $40 or so. It was the worst feeling since, as a teen, it’d never happened to me before and i didn’t think people were ‘bad’ or dishonest like that. No one cared. I cried. :(

    People definitely tried following me, fleecing me, etc on my travels. Sadly i ended up having a fight with a rickshaw guy in Hanoi. I felt bad, but it did help harden my skin for future dealings.

  7. Andrea says:

    My husband and I travel as a couple and we trust no one either. You just get hardened from too many very bad experiences and that’s that. John has had fellow hostel mates steal from him. You expect that from the poor locals, but another traveler doing it to you is the lowest of the low. That said, we are friendly to others at the hostel, but out in the streets, we pretty mush ignore anyone who approaches us unless we hear a familiar accent – then maybe we’ll give them an ear (from a couple of yards away). Sad but true.

    • admin says:

      sometimes it’s necessary to have people really earn your trust instead of just giving it. Wow – that’s terrible about people stealing from you at the hostel. I’m always worried about that – but never had it happen.

  8. Elise says:

    I constantly have to remind myself ‘I am not a bad person’ while we are away. Sometimes I feel so bad ignoring someone or just walking away from people, but it is so true about travelling. One of the things I always say to Ant and myself is ‘keep your wits about you!’…

  9. Amy says:

    This is great advice Sherry and so true. I have always been suspicious of beggars. I was told that the beggar is a plant to see where you are holding your money and then when you walk away someone with them pickpockets you. Thanks for posting. Always a good reminder.

  10. Unfortunately, most people reading these sound advice would immediately forget it once abroad. I see them everyday here in Paris. I can’t believe that people fall for very obvious scams like the card game. People, particularly those who are not seasoned travellers, usually leave their common sense back home and think nice Parisians are giving away money in the streets. Just came across this “is this your golden ring” scam. I told her she better get lost before I call the police. Gone she was before I blinked.

    • admin says:

      Well, even I didn’t immediately realize what was going on when she first came up to me! Yes – I suppose people read and forget. But hopefully they catch on quickly like I did!

  11. Gray says:

    You are so right about getting in touch with your inner bitch. I learned to do that a long time ago, right here at home. I don’t give to panhandlers ever because you just never know whether they’re being honest that they need the money or what they’ll use it for.

    I had a woman try to the “found gold ring” trick on me in Paris too. Luckily, I had just read about it before my trip, so I knew what was going on. I just said “No” and kept walking. I had a couple of other situations that felt like scams to me, too, and same deal. I just said no and moved on. Felt a little guilty a couple of times, but it is necessary not to get sucked into these things, especially when you’re traveling solo.

  12. Alison says:

    I’ve always been a ‘trust no one’ kind of gal and I always feel a bit guilty about it but then again, I’ve not yet been scammed or had anything stolen (knocking furiously on wood). I was also hit by the ring scam in Paris and just kept on going (were you by the Seine by any chance?). The woman moved right on to the couple walking behind me…

    • admin says:

      I was close to the Seine, but I was actually at the Louvre going towards the riverbank! I found that Europe seemed to be full of scam artists at all of the major attractions!

  13. Oh my! I have a different take on things. I do keep my guard up at all times, and I think the advice “if it seems too good to be true it probably is” is great advice, but if I’d wholesale shut out every person who has approached me on my travels, I would have missed out on some of the most wonderful experiences of my life. Like the man who rode up to me on a motorcycle in northern Thailand and stopped, inquiring if he could be of help, since I was looking at a map. He offered me a ride and invited me to his home. I said no thanks at first, but then we chatted for a while (he was a Brit expat who’d retired to Thailand and married a local women) and I somehow knew he was OK. Not only did I go to his home and meet his family, we stayed in touch for years and he was an inspirational force in my life until, sadly, he passed away. And when the kids in Cambodia started to get to me with their intense pestering to buy something, instead o f turning my back I found a way to turn the situation around and ended up receiving a present from one of the little girls, simply because I took the time to really talk to her. I try to walk a middle ground and trust my gut, while also being informed about the common scams. I try to always tell someone who I going with, where we are going, and when I plan to be back. I know that’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

    • admin says:

      Barbara – seems like you’ve found a good balance. I agree – it’s important to trust your gut and let people in at times just to be spontaneous and see where it leads. However – I tend to put the barriers up more around big tourist sites as the odds aren’t in my favor!

  14. Margaret says:

    This just happened to us today in Jaipur. We weren’t scammed out of much and it was so out of the kindness of our hearts. We like to stay open and have definitely met some great people that way, but then we have to accept that sometimes we’re going to get scammed too. Good with the bad.

  15. Anil says:

    I’m pretty suspicious myself and rarely trust people that happen upon me, especially in popular tourist places. It’s an easier policy to follow to avoid scams but at the same time I wish it weren’t the case.

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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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